Drugmakers play the patent game to lock in prices, block competitors

Once a drug hits the marketplace, pharmaceutical companies usually have less than 10 years of exclusive rights to it.

Once a drug hits the marketplace, pharmaceutical companies usually have less than 10 years of exclusive rights to it. However, they can extend their monopolies by obtaining secondary patents—tactics dubbed by critics as "evergreening" or "product-hopping." Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, a patent law expert at Stanford University, says the pharmaceutical industry enjoys a greater financial return from its patent strategy than any other industry. Another common strategy is claiming multiple patents for a single drug to build protection from competitors. Meanwhile, continuation patents do not necessarily extend the patent life of a drug, but they can have other uses. In 2016, for example, Rhodes Pharmaceuticals filed a lawsuit against Indivior alleging patent infringement. Indivior, formerly part of Reckitt Benckiser, sells a film version of a popular addiction treatment drug—a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone—that is placed under the tongue. The film, which comes in a lime flavor, holds a 54% average market share. Rhodes, meanwhile, has a patent on a wafer version of the drug that melts quickly in the mouth, with potential flavors including mint, raspberry, and caramel, according to the inventors. Opioid historian David Herzberg at the University of Buffalo says decisions on what is available on the market to treat people with addictions should be based on what is the best way to treat them, rather than patent rivalries.